photo via Architecture magazine, July 7, 1918 (copyright expired)
In 1891, Christopher Furness, owner of the Furness Line of steamships, and Henry Withy, head of the shipbuilding firm Edward Withy & Co., merged their businesses to form Furness, Withy & Co., Ltd. Starting out with 18 vessels, by the outbreak of World War I, it sailed more than 200--and it was ready for a new New York City branch office building.
On May 5, 1917, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that Furness, Withy & Co., Ltd. had purchased the southwest corner of Whitehall and Pearl Street "for improvement with a six-story fireproof building, which will be used as a permanent home" for the firm. The Whitehall Street area was where most of the steamship companies were concentrated. Architect Walter B. Chambers was commissioned to design the structure. Although he had formed a partnership with Ernest Flagg in 1894, only Chambers was listed as architect for this project.
The Record & Guide said, "The facade will be of limestone or marble, and will be set back in both Whitehall and Pearl streets to conform with the fronts of the contiguous South Ferry Building." The cost of construction was placed at $200,000--or approximately $4.25 million in 2022.
With war raging in Europe, the project came at a tense time for Furness, Withy & Co., Ltd. Eight months earlier, on October 8, 1916, the firm's ship the West Point had been sunk by a German submarine near Nantucket, Massachusetts. Germany was actively targeting British freighters, but the firm was resolute. On February 19, 1917 Lord Marmaduke Furness, head of Furness, Whithy, commented, "Our own line has lost thirty-one ships during the war, but we are replacing them two to one. When the war is over our facilities will have more than doubled."
Despite the depleted labor force due to the war, the Whitehall Street headquarters, known as Furness House, was completed in 1918. Chambers's dignified building smacked of a Georgian townhouse in London. The openings within the rusticated ground floor were arranged in a rhythmic arcade. The three-story mid-section featured tall windows at the second floor fronted by iron faux- balconies and capped with classical pediments. Spandrel panels between the third and fourth floors were carved with delicate swags. The top floor sat upon a prominent cornice and was crowned by a stone balustrade.
Following the war, Americans resumed ocean travel. And Furness, Withy & Co., Ltd. began branching out into the luxury passenger trade. On September 19, 1919, The New York Times reported that the firm had acquired the New-York Bermuda Line, adding, "The Furness company will put the British passenger steamships Fort Hamilton and Fort Victoria into the new service."
The following decade, Furness, Withy & Co., Ltd., made a notable move in modernizing its fleet. At the annual meeting on July 28, 1927, Sir Frederick Lewis announced that in the past two years, "all ships ordered by Furness Withy and associated companies have been motor ships." The New York Times reported, "Lewis said he believed that the future of long-voyage trading lay with motor ships. He, however, deplored the high cost of construction of this class of vessel."
At the time, American views of ocean travel--once simply the only means of transportation between America to Europe--were changing. Voyages to places like Bermuda and Canada were vacations in themselves--the beginnings of the cruise ship craze of the last decades of the century. The New York Times reported on December 3, 1927 that the Furness, Withy line had launched "the new 20,000-ton motor ship Bermuda," saying, "Tourist interests in Bermuda are organizing early in preparation for the coming season."
The voyage portion of cruises offered by the Furness Bermuda Line were an integral part of the vacation experience. New York Herald, June 25, 1922 (copyright expired)
The firm continued to gobble up other freight and passenger lines. On May 22, 1933, The New York Times reported, "Lord Essendon, chairman of Furness, Withy, & Co., Ltd., today moved a step nearer dominance of the British shipping world with the announcement that his company had acquired a controlling interest in the Shaw, Savill & Albion Co., Ltd, which operates twenty-two passenger liners and freighters between Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand." The article noted, "Henceforth ships operated or controlled by Furness, Withy & Co. will be seen on every ocean."
The expansion of business required more space and around this time the building was seamlessly enlarged to seven floors. The original intermediate cornice and the top floor balustrade were either salvaged or perfectly copied. The completed renovations gave no hint that the two new floors were not original.
Following the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the firm found itself, once again, a target of German torpedoes and mines. And, once again, Furness, Withy & Co., Ltd. rebuffed the enemy's threat. Following the sinking of the British steamer Horsted and deaths of three of its crew on December 6, 1939, Furness, Withy & Co. announced that it "would institute a fortnightly service of fast cargo liners between New York and London," reported The New York Times.
The wartime efforts went further. Two of the firm's most luxurious passenger vessels, the Monarch of Bermuda and the Queen of Bermuda, were converted for military purposes. The Monarch of Bermuda became a troop ship and its sister ship was outfitted with guns as an armed merchant cruiser.
As war neared an end, Furness, Withy & Co. looked to the future. And as had been the case in 1919, it planned not only to return to normal, but to expand. On December 28, 1943, The New York Times reported that the firm, "whose luxury liners were a main artery of Bermuda's pre-war tourist trade with New York, will extend its ship service after the war."
Furness, Withy & Co., Ltd. continued to operate from its handsome Whitehall Street building until the late 1960's. The firm was acquired by the Orient Overseas Container Line of Hong Kong in 1980, and was resold to the Oetker Group in 1990.
In the meantime, Walter B. Chambers's handsome Furness House was demolished in 1970, replaced by 34 Whitehall Street, completed in 1976.
many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for prompting this post
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